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This story was supposed to be pretty straightforward. Last Wednesday night, I went to the Continental Club to see Michael Haaga, the former dead horse guitarist now fronting what he calls a "heavy mellow" band. Haaga's CD The Plus and Minus Show is my choice for local CD of the year, and I wanted to see how it played live. It played great -- as it happened, it was absolutely fantastic -- and since this was one of his first shows with this band, I got the impression that it will only get better. If there's a local breakout rock band next year, this mélange of Stone Temple Pilots, the Beatles, the Flaming Lips and the Shins could and should be the one.
Good vibes abounded. The Plus and Minus Show was a collaborative effort involving Houston musicians from about a dozen bands, and many of them who aren't in Haaga's live band dropped by to check out the show, as well as the unofficial grand opening of Sig's Lagoon, Clouseaux singer Thomas Escalante's gift shop/record store next door to the Continental. Escalante even dashed from behind the cash register to sing backing vocals with Haaga on the epically gorgeous "Four Letter Words." In short, the whole evening was one of warm, loving, smart modern rock and roll -- the kind you just sit back and bask in like a bath, the kind that gives you goose bumps and makes you high-five your friends.
Wednesday nights don't come much better than that one. John Lennon, who had been murdered 24 years ago to the day before, would have been proud of the way rock and roll brought a few dozen people together, united us in good cheer and, at least temporarily, love for all mankind. Little did we know that the hideous side of rock and roll had reared its loathsome head -- again -- at that very moment in Columbus, Ohio, where Haaga's good friend, former Pantera and current Damageplan guitarist "Dimebag Darrell" Abbott, had been assassinated on stage by a deranged fan, who also killed several fans and club employees before being killed himself. Witnesses said he was upset about Pantera breaking up.
Of course, none of us knew any of that until later that night -- or the next day, in my case, when the hideous headlines ambushed me along with my hangover, brushing aside the echoes of Haaga's show and killing the memories of what had been a mildly magical night. As one Internet poster put it on Damageplan's message board, Haaga's show had fallen on what was "the worst day in metal history."
And yes, rock and roll is indeed a plus and minus show. Haaga explained his album title to me on the Poison Girl patio back in September, in words that would take on tragic new meaning just three months later: "Everything has a plus and a minus. It's as simple as that -- life, death -- and as complicated as that. In some ways it turned out to be a project that was about adding and subtracting people, but honestly it's how I try to look at life and how life keeps popping up. You have to see the negatives and positives."
It seemed a little goofy and mystical at the time, but I guess it really is as simple as that. I talked to Haaga the day after his glorious show and Dimebag's murder. "A friend of mine walked in the club late last night and told me," Haaga said. "It was hard to believe, but I did believe him, because you just don't walk into a club and tell that kind of rumor."
Haaga's earlier band dead horse had opened a few shows for Pantera, and Haaga had also played in Superjoint Ritual with Pantera front man Phil Anselmo. Dimebag was a big dead horse fan; he supplied some glowing quotes to the band's press kit and even sported a dead horse shirt from time to time. "Last night was one of those nights of really high highs and really low lows," Haaga said. "Earlier today I just thought to myself, 'Wow, I even went to his house one time.' It hits way too close to me. I wish I was farther away from it than I I just wish I was farther away from it. It's a horrible, sick thing. He was just a Coors Light-drinkin', pot-smokin', whiskey-drinkin' fool, you know. I can't imagine why someone would do that -- because of all the bad blood about Pantera breaking up? It's just silly. Things like this just continue to warp us more, rot away at what it is that we are."
The first things you think about a horrific event like this are phrases like "Holy shit!" and "What the fuck?!" The next thing you think is -- and this is tragic -- you marvel that this sort of thing doesn't happen more often. Few rock clubs have metal detectors at the doors, nor do many bouncers frisk patrons. Frankly, I'm a little amazed that no other musician had been killed on stage by a fan before. "It's too easy," Haaga said. "If you can get that kind of press, that kind of shock wave. It's brilliant in an evil way."
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